2021 was a doozy of a year, particularly for the entertainment industry. Throughout the last 365 days or so, we’ve seen as studios and fans alike returned to theaters, and one genre had a particularly busy year: movie musicals. Of course, some of these adaptations were more successful than others. And as we close the year, here are the seven best musicals of 2021, ranked.
Before diving into all the musical blockbusters that arrived via streaming and theaters, here are some ground rules. Namely, I'm not including animated musical projects like Enanto or Vivo. Instead, I’ll be focusing on live-action musicals that were released over 2021. I’m also disqualifying The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which features some musical numbers by Jessica Chastain, but isn’t technically a musical.
The story of Cinderella has been adapted for film a number of times, including the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. But director Kay Cannon and Amazon Studios put a new spin on that classic tale with their musical Cinderella. Rather than feature original music, the soundtrack was mostly a jukebox musical featuring beloved songs by Janet Jackson, Madonna and Queen.
The critical response was mixed to negative for Cinderella, and it was definitely my least favorite installment of the genre for 2021. Despite strong performance by icons like Idina Menzel and Billy Porter, Camila Cabello failed to carry the role of the title character. The original musical numbers also paled in comparison to the covers like “Material Girl.” Add in a somewhat problematic marketing campaign, including James Corden going viral for dancing in the middle of the street, and this new Cinderella failed to live up to its namesake.
This one was a project that I was really excited for, and it truly threw me for a loop. Annette is a psychological musical drama directed by Leos Carax, and it's one of the most purposefully bizarre new movies of 2021. The story focuses on a couple, played by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, who eventually have a child Annette, which is played by a marionette puppet. From there, things go from weird to weirder, including shocking deaths, the use of ghosts and (of course) lots of musical numbers.
While Annette as a movie knows exactly what it’s trying to do, it bordered on being unwatchable for me at times. This is partly due to the music, which is by and large fairly non-melodic. The opening number “So May We Start” is energizing, while others fail to have the same impact. If you can’t fully embrace the weirdness of Annette, it might not be worth it.
5. Dear Evan Hansen
Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen movie had some killer talent in the cast, including the likes of Julianne Moore and Amy Adams who joined original star Ben Platt. While Platt received universal acclaim for originating the title role, the internet wasn’t kind to the Tony winner after the movie’s first trailer was released. Countless memes about Platt’s appearance made their way online, in some ways overshadowing the emotional work being done on the film adaptation.
Despite this, I thought the Dear Evan Hansen movie was quite successful. While I missed cut songs like “Does Anybody Have A Map?”, the ensemble cast put a ton of heart into their work – especially Ben Platt himself. The new ending also gave some much-needed closure to a story that’s somewhat hard to digest as an audience member. And director Stephen Chbosky definitely knows how to tell organic teenage stories— just look at his work on Perks of Being A Wallflower.
4. Everybody's Talking About Jamie
This one might have gone under the radar for some movie fans. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was released on Amazon Prime Video in the middle of September, and it was one of my favorite movie musicals of the year. Based off the West End stage musical of the same name, Jamie is a heartwarming tale of a High School student (played by Max Hardwood) who dreams of becoming a professional Drag Queen.
While on this quest, he finds a mentor in Hugo Battersby/Loco Chanelle, played by the always delightful Richard E. Grant. The musical numbers are catchy and fun, even those that are a bit more on the serious side. Overall, it’s a joyous movie experience filled with killer music, and it ended up being a sleeper hit in 2021 for me.
3. In The Heights
In the Heights was set up to be a summer blockbuster, but was also available to watch via HBO Max. Directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu, he took that same larger-than-life filmmaking and brought it to the musical genre. What resulted was moments of fantasy like Nina and Benny dancing on the side of a building in “When The Sun Goes Down.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg regarding what the film adaptation brought to the Tony-winning source material.
In the Heights earned strong reviews, with both Jon M. Chu’s direction and the cast’s performance being the subject of praise. Writer and original Usnavi actor Lin-Manuel Miranda even had a role as the Piragua Guy, to the delight of his fans. In The Heights is another project that makes some changes to the source material, but in a way that largely enriches characters rather than stripping them of opportunities. That being said, I think we can all agree that we’d love to see Jimmy Smits belt out Kevin’s deleted song “Inutil”, right?
2. West Side Story
The final movie musical to arrive in 2021 was Steven Spileberg’s new take on West Side Story. While the legendary filmmaker had big shoes to fill after the 1961 movie, he paired with the incomparable Tony Kushner and crafted a new take on the story we know and love. The new screenplay, in many ways, was the start of the show, as characters like Maria, Chino, Graziella, and Anybodys all became much more fleshed out.
Steven Spielberg brought classic movie magic to West Side Story, with bright colors and gorgeous cinematography that prove how methodically he approached his work. The cast also gives truly unreal performances, particularly newcomer Rachel Zegler and Hamilton alum Ariana DeBose. Somehow West Side Story improves on the original, while also honoring it thanks to subtle visual nods and the inclusion of Rita Moreno.
1. Tick, Tick...BOOM!
The influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work is definitely obvious in this list. And while In the Heights was a film adaption of his first musical, Miranda made his directorial debut with the Tick, Tick…BOOM! movie. The project got its wide release on Netflix, with Andrew Garfield giving a universally acclaimed performance as Jonathan Larson.
Based off the stage musical of the same name, Tick, Tick…Boom! tells the story of Jonathan Larson, the late writer of RENT. In addition to capturing this specific time in the early 1990s, Miranda also crafted the movie into a true love letter to Broadway. With Bradley Whitford playing the late Stephen Sondheim shortly before the songwriter’s death, and thrilling cameos in the song “Sunday”, Miranda proved himself as a capable director, and also happened to release my favorite movie musical of the year.
Clearly 2021 was an abundance of riches for movie musicals, and it should be interesting to see what installments to the tried and true genre follow. Fans are excited for the upcoming Wicked movie, which will also be helmed by Jon. M. Chu and stars Ariana Grande and Cythia Erivo. There’s also The Little Mermaid and Disenchanted coming later down the line, so there will be plenty more toe-tapping songs on the big screen. In the meantime, check out the 2022 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience.
Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Double majored in theater and literature during undergrad. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his famous actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid.
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